Resting in the Everlasting Arms

 Everlasting Arms

Deuteronomy 32:27: Our eternal refuge with Our Creator eternal, and God’s almighty arms underneath are everlasting.

I am almost three weeks into my radiation treatments for prostate cancer (my prognosis is positive and the treatments are quick and painless, and I am thankful that so far I have had no adverse effects), and share a ride with a woman whom I’ll call Sharon from our church. It’s nice to have company on the 32-mile round trip drive, and I’ve gotten to know Sharon better over the past couple of weeks.

The past couple of weeks, Sharon has shared a number of stories from her past with me. She grew up in Derry, a small town in New Hampshire and went to the local high school, where Robert Frost taught for a while. (She told me she did not have him as a teacher.) The population was so small that one school bus covered the entire attendance area. And I thought I had a long bus ride in high school! Sharon went on to say that buses were only for students through grade eight. After that, they were on their own. Her father went to work at 6:30 AM and dropped her at a traffic circle about a half mile from school. The janitor lived at the school so he had the building open and stoves going when she arrived. I imagine it was a glimpse of Paradise to come in to a warm building from the New Hampshire winter.

Sharon’s older brother was born in 1930. While he was still an infant, his mother stood holding him in their living room while an electrical storm raged about them. Lightning struck the house, traveled into the room and hit the baby, not harming the mother at all. Of course the infant suffered neurological damage and had seizures and other medical problems the rest of his short life. He passed away at age seven when Marge was four, and she spoke with great tenderness of taking care of this unfortunate child.

I had never heard of a babe in arms being struck by lightning, much less while being held in loving arms. It seems to me a parallel to how God treats each of us as God’s eternal children. We are babes in this world, and as the storms of life rage about us, sometimes we are struck by any number of destructive forces. But no matter how we are harmed or the extent of our injuries and diseases, the arms that hold us are everlasting. Let us praise God for God’s goodness, care, compassion and eternal vigilance over us, who are to the Creator as babies to their mothers.

 

 

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A Found Grace

Elderly Lady Clapping Her Hands

Psalm 118: 27-29 (alt.) The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With palms in our hands, we join the festal procession marching to the holy sanctuary. Lord, you are God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you. And so give thanks to the Lord all you people all over the world. Our God is good, and the Father’s steadfast love endures forever, to all generations.

I don’t know how you feel about applause, or if you have an opinion about it one way or the other. It’s not something that generally stirs strong feelings, although it did in churches a while back when congregations starting applauding high moments, perhaps to excess. You didn’t hear it from me, but some contemporary services (not the ones here, of course) have so much applause it sounds like they’re voting for the best singer or ditch digger or accountant on one of those awful TV games shows you can still find in the upper 7000’s of cable lineups.

We as congregations have come to at least tolerate or actively use applause to indicate we have been moved or stirred or touched. In fact, if an anthem is greeting by dead silence (as sometimes happens when the congregation is mulling over the emotional impact of the song), I feel like a failure and want to run away and live in the rain forest among cannibals. But the cooler heads that surround me manage to keep me here, and I’m glad to that.

Anyhow, to the point:

Sometimes moments of grace occur in our lives at times we least expect them and in places that seem most unlikely to be filled with grace. Last week after I had visited my dad in his apartment at Caton Merchant House, I walked past the dining room where one lady remained long after the lunch was finished. At CMH, as the cool kids call it, residents can stay at the table as long as the cafeteria is open, which it is all day. One fellow sits there all day, slowly eating his food. I asked one of the nurses about him, and she said, “He enjoys eating.” And so he does. Such enjoyment of a simple pleasure is commendable, I think.

As I went by this lady, whom I did not know, I saw she was gently and soundlessly clapping her tiny hands. I try to speak to each resident I encounter whether I know them or not, so I went over and said, “M’am, I saw you were clapping. Were you applauding anything in particular?”

She looked up at me with clear blue eyes and said, “That’s how I praise God for my meal and for being so good to me for so long.”

I walked out into the warm sunshine thinking that once again I had found grace in an unlikely place. And I won’t ever think of applause in quite the same way again.

 

The Pursuit of Happiness

Happy Boy Flier

Matthew 5: 12: Be filled with joy and be happy…
Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, or worn. It is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude. -Denis Waitley
I don’t know if you heard about an editorial in The New York Times by Arthur Brooks, president of The American Enterprise Institute, who wrote explains happiness stems from three sources: genetics, events and values.

While half of one’s happiness is genetic, Brooks wrote that 40 percent of happiness can be attributed to events in one’s life and 12 percent boils down to circumstances well within one’s control.

“Everybody’s got these cheerful co-workers who are very annoying, and you think they must have some sort of secret potion. ‘What are they drinking, man?’ But the truth is, half of your happiness is genetic. And understanding that only about 12 percent of your happiness is under your control … you really can control it.”

What are these circumstances one can control to achieve 12 percent of total happiness? Brooks noted that there are four: faith, family, friends and work.

“Don’t waste your time on money, don’t waste your time on these things, spend your time on faith, family, friends and work, making sure that your work serves others and creates value. And if you do those four things, you’re going to get the maximum amount of happiness.”

While a promotion at work, a new house and even a chocolate sundae bring joy, Brooks wrote that the resulting state of euphoria is fleeting — a temporary feeling.

“People will work for years, just to make a boatload of dough and buy that dream house, and six months later, they’re back to their old bummed-out ways,” Brooks wrote.

So while 40 percent of happiness is attributed to events in one’s life — such as that new house, or a professional accomplishment — the happiness experienced from these milestones is short-lived.

Because of this, Brooks advised not to “bet your well-being on big one-time events.” Instead, investing energy in faith, family and friends is a better investment for long-term happiness.

“Knowledge is absolute power in this case. It’s so important. Every time I write about (happiness), it reminds me of the things that I am doing wrong, and it makes me a better dad.”

Mr. Brooks’ reminder is an important one, but it is only a reminder. An itinerant rabbi told the world the same thing over 2000 years ago when he sat thousands of people down on a hillside in Palestine and reminded us of the source of joyful living. Praise God for the gifts of joyful living and for his one and only Son.

 

One Way

One Way Sign
John 14:6-7: Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

I don’t know if you have ever driven yourself to distraction. I used “to distraction” rather than “crazy” in an attempt to be sensitive to mental health issues, but every time I hear either phrase, I think of my mother who used to say to my brother and me, with great regularity, “Boys, you’re going to put me in Staunton!” By this, she meant the men in the white coats were going to take her away to the Western State Hospital, a state run mental facility located in the Shenandoah Valley. I assumed all the mothers whose kids drove them over the edge were taken to Staunton until I met some people from Tidewater who talked about being taken to Williamsburg, the site of the Eastern State Hospital. I don’t recall how state mental hospitals came up in conversation, but apparently it did.

I was thinking about being taken to Staunton about a month ago when I realized I have been driving myself to distraction by trying to multi-task. I know, multi-tasking is the hip and fun thing, and all the cool kids are doing it, but just trying to do so had just gotten to me. (I’m even not sure it is possible to multi-task: some studies indicate that when people are multi-tasking, they’re not really doing several things at once, but rather shifting their attention rapidly from one task to another. And, as you might imagine, it’s rather easy to drive yourself to distraction doing this as well, multi-taking or no.)

I realized I needed to stop trying to do more than one thing at a time as the result of what psychologists call a “precipitating event.” Paul being knocked off his donkey is a classic example of such an event. I had come home one afternoon and, as was my custom, as I climbed out of the car, I took up in my hands the bag containing leftovers from lunch, about three Food Lion bags of groceries, a stray tool that needed to come in from the car and mail for the day. Before I loaded myself down, I had put the strap from my laptop case over my shoulder. And because I had my hands full, I held the key to the door in my teeth (don’t try this at home and don’t tell my dentist) so I would be able to open the door without having to take the key out of my pocket. I did all this because I am a guy and I am too lazy to make another trip. Hence, multi-tasking.

Being right handed, I needed to use my right hand to open the door, so I shifted the grocery bags so that their handles hung from my left wrist, which also had the effect of turning the thin plastic straps into a rather effective and extremely sharp blade. You know what I’m talking about.

So, as I was trying to get the key from between my teeth and hold on to my heavy burden, disaster struck. It was a disaster of my own making, but it was a calamity nonetheless. As I took the key from its resting place, the plastic bag garrote cut into my poor defenseless extremity and then parted in the middle. My food supplies for the next couple of days landed with a crash on the hard porch and, suddenly relieved of about thirty pounds on the left side of my unfortunate body, I lurched to the right under the malevolent influence of gravity and my fourteen-inch laptop. The net result was that I fell over in a heap, twisting my torso to avoid falling on the computer and pulling some very large abdominal muscles in what turned out to be an extremely painful episode.

As I said, it was my fault for trying to multi-task, save some time avoid walking an additional 100 feet and get on to something else. I had no need to hurry: it was a pleasant 70 degrees; there was no precipitation, and I wasn’t being pursued by wolves, jackals, ocelots, zombies or middle schoolers.

It was at this point that I began thinking seriously about doing one thing at a time and doing it well And so I have tried to do so this past month, and I think it has created a remarkable change not only in my behavior and also my attitude. I relax and take my time. As a result, I’m not frustrated or harried as much, and I haven’t damaged $17.00 worth of groceries so far this month. I feel more relaxed, and even find myself driving slightly below the speed limit, that is, if there isn’t a BMW hot on my bumper.

The spiritual implications of this are, I think, clear. We need to relax, slow down where possible, do what we do well and take the opportunity to use and enjoy the gift of each millisecond that God has given us. We won’t do everything God has for us to do in this life, or even half of it the tasks God has for us. God is bigger than that, and because of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have all the time of eternity. Amen.

Poem: Ladies of the Church

I posted my piece on the ladies of the church last week, and my friend and former colleague Mary McElveen and also former Poet Laureate of the City of Alexandria, put this on her blog.

She wrote, I wrote [this] for a friend who was asked to say a few words about a lady at the church who died of cancer. Gloria was one of those indefatigable volunteers, and probably has heaven organized and running like a top.

Thank you for letting me post your poem, Mary. Every church has its church ladies.
They are legion,
the church ladies:
the hands that smooth the tablecloths, brew the coffee,
bake the cookies, make the sandwiches,
arrange the flowers.

They think of everything,
then do it.
They are the voices on the phone
the fingers on the keyboard,
the gentle nudge
reminding, recruiting,
reorganizing and regrouping—
doing the things no one has time for,
for the people no one has time for… and for us all.

They are all things good:
secretary and sorceress,
chauffeur and counselor,
teacher and student,
greeter and galley slave…

And I can’t help thinking that if Jesus is among us,
He is cleverly disguised
as a church lady.

The Ladies of the Church

Church Ladies
 
1 Timothy 5:1-3 (selected): Treat…older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters… (and) give proper recognition to widows…

 The title of this piece this is not a reference to Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, a hilarious send-up of an uptight, self-righteous judgmental church lady on Saturday Night Live several years back. No, these church ladies are a group of ladies of a certain age at my church who are at opposite poles from uptight and self-righteous. Many (though not all) of them are widows, and they are faithful supporters of the church and its people. I see them sometimes sitting together in services. They are always immaculately dressed and well turned out and don’t seem to change or age that much.

 The ladies of the church have been through more than most of us. They have suffered the deaths of spouses, children, friends, and losses of all kinds from financial reverses to illness. I would not minimize their sufferings, but they have an indomitable faith, and a spirit that bears them up and carries them on. I feel better just seeing them wherever they are, and they are in most places around town—at plays, concerts, restaurants and sporting events, making a contribution to the life of the community just through their presence and good cheer.

 The ladies of the church have children and grandchildren of their own, and they are actively involved in supporting their families. They baby sit, take the kids to rehearsals, attend performances and games and celebrate birthdays. In some cases they are raising the grandchildren because their children are not able to do so.

The ladies of the church have a wide range of interests. One is involved in a book club that has run for years; she always has a good recommendation for me of a book to read. Another is a Nationals fan like I am and we share in our team’s suffering. One coordinated and taught in our ESOL program for decades. She lived all over the world and has a deep appreciation of other people and their culture. Another oversees a quilting ministry at the church which involves dozens of people. Another is a master gardener and leads the effort to keep the church grounds beautiful.

 I have identified the church ladies by their interests instead of their names because they would not like the attention. In fact, some of them will probably smack me in the head for implying that they are any more special than any one else. But they are, and I value their good sense, insight, sense of humor and their wisdom, although they would not claim any special qualities for themselves.

 When there is a funeral, they are there in the kitchen, making sure the family and friends are fed and insuring that they will have enough food during the trying days after the service. They supply food and help at church dinners—and you’re lucky if you come to a meal where they help provide the food—they are all excellent cooks.

 They are women of faith, with beliefs that have been tested by trial and trouble. They are involved in the Sunday School, music program, missions activities, women’s ministry and senior adult program, just to name a few. They serve without notice, but they are the quiet mainstays of the fellowship.

Of course, there are many other groups within our church family—the smallest babies, the children, the young people, the couples, the singles, those who are middle-aged and the seniors. They’re what helps make a church a church. Every church seems to have them, and each group contributes something special to the community. This time, though, I want to salute the ladies. I hope you’ll recognize and encourage them as well.

 So, here’s to you, ladies of the church. May you prosper, and may you continue to inspire and lead the rest of us. May you keep on keeping on for a long, long time.

 

 

 

To-Do List

To Do List

1. Spend time with people who can lift you up and inspire you.

2. Face your problems.

3. Be honest with yourself.

4. Put others first.

5. Be yourself.

6. Live in the present, and have faith for the future.

7. Make mistakes. You’ll learn a lot.

8. Forgive others.

9. Learn to forgive yourself.

10. Realize that happiness can’t be bought.

11. Nor can anyone else make you happy.

12. Be productive but not overactive.

13. You’re as ready as you’re going to be. So do it.

14. Cooperation, not competition.

15. Maintain your dignity, your standards and your sense of humor.

16. Look for the beauty of small moments and every day events.

17. Take responsibility for yourself.

18. Look for occasions of gratitude.

19. Always take time for children, pets and old people.

20. Stop and help, even if it makes you late.